I am just going to lay it out there instead of attempting to be eloquent; I think Dallas is in serious trouble in this football game. My heart tells me they are, by far, the better team on the field. My gut tells me they will win in a similar fashion to the Washington and Miami games. My mind tells me the Arizona Cardinals’ three greatest strengths are matched up against three of the Cowboys’ weaknesses.
In the past two or three weeks in particular, the Cowboys have struggled to cover explosive kick returners on both kickoffs and punts. Oddly, this was not the case earlier in the season. This weakness seems to be a new concern for Dallas. Granted, the Cowboys have had to contain Washington’s Brandon Banks and Miami’s Devone Bess but the responsibility is not going to get any easier. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson has set an NFL record with 4 returns for touchdowns this season and looks to be the most explosive return man the game has seen since teams stopped kicking to Chicago’s Devin Hester. It is easier said than done, but P Mat McBriar and K Dan Bailey need to play copycat and kick the ball away from Peterson. If they don’t, the Cardinals will have a distinct advantage that can change games.
Editor’s Update: Just a clarification: Patrick Peterson is tied with 3 other players for the NFL record of 4 punt returns for a TD in a single season. Peterson is the only one with 4 returns over 80 yards.
The best Cardinals defender, Darnell Dockett, will be matched up against the slowest of the Cowboys offensive lineman. Montrae Holland has impressed since he returned to Dallas at the end of September 2011 by losing weight and improved play. However, he has still struggled against the faster defensive lineman in the past 7 or 8 games, particularly against Philadelphia’s Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins. Tony Romo’s incredible ability to escape the rush makes this a secondary or tertiary concern, but it is a concern nonetheless.
I have made my thoughts very clear on the Cowboys’ secondary. The return of Mike Jenkins is not exactly a comfort to a team that cannot rely on him to stay on the field or make plays against good wide receivers in single coverage. Orlando Scandrick has made plays but has failed to live up to the contract that he was given a few short months ago. The safeties are a patch work at best and Alan Ball is just not a qualified NFL cornerback. They will face the best wide receiver in all of football, Larry Fitzgerald. Even if Rob Ryan finds a way to set these corners up for success against Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Early Doucet will be difficult to cover. This match-up will decide the football game.
The saving grace is the Cowboys pass rush against the Cardinals offensive line. Arizona has given up 36 sacks allowed (2nd worst in the NFL) and is only bested (worsted?) by two division opponents Seattle and St. Louis at 39 sacks allowed. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware, who has a league leading 14 sacks thus far, will challenge that poor offensive line. OLB Anthony Spencer will also look to continue his improved play and NT Jay Ratliff will push the Cardinals offensive line backwards. If one of those three players or a blitzing linebacker/defensive back can find 2-4 sacks on 3rd downs, the Cowboys might negate the Cardinals advantages.
If the undefeated Packers stay that way for one more weekend and Dallas can take care of business in Arizona, then the Cowboys can clinch the division with a win in Arlington on Sunday Night Football against the New York Giants next Sunday. This game will not be about the “December swoon,” Tony Romo not delivering in a certain month or the team finally turning the corner. If the Cowboys win today, it has to be about getting the job done one day at a time as Jason Garrett has preached since his first day on the job. If they lose, it is because they were not adequately prepared to face a lesser opponent. Tony Romo and company are not worried about what day it is, what month it is or what teams lie ahead. Jason Garrett has this team focused on the task at hand.
For our sake, let’s consider today November 34th.